Monday, October 21, 2013

Milton and Galileo

In Book 8 of Paradise Lost, Raphael gives Adam what seems to be a pretty uninformed explanation of the workings of celestial bodies. He finally tells Adam to "solicit not [his] thoughts with matters hid," but to instead "leave them to God above."

Up to this point in the poem, Milton hasn't seemed to have any problems being very direct on sensitive issues of doctrine. Why, then, does he hesitate to make a clear statement on the validity of geocentrism?

The Ptolemaic system explains that the planetary motions center around our Earth. It has a strong history in literature, and many authors (most importantly Dante) found it a strong symbol to use in their works. It traces its roots all the way back to Greek philosophy, and wasn't seriously challenged until Copernicus in 1543. Even then, it took a long while for the debate to resolve, and it was in full force during Milton's time.

One of the strongest voices that opposed the Ptolemaic system was Galileo Galilei.Galileo had been accused of heresy, and would be a prisoner of sorts for the rest of his life. Towards the end of his life, Galileo received an interesting visitor-- a young Milton. Interestingly enough, Galileo had become blind by that point. (Sensing a trend?) In his article "Milton and Astronomy," J. A. Paterson writes, "Milton has not given us any account of this memorable visit, yet it was one which made a lasting impression on his mind and was never afterwards forgotten by him. 'There it was,' he writes, 'I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.'"

There is a lot to learn from Milton's description of astronomy. We know he had strong respect for Galileo and had no problem opposing the church's views. Why then, does he seem to ride the fence on the matter of geocentric theories?

J.A. Paterson's article is really interesting:


  1. Well, I don't know that he necessarily was okay about openly opposing the ruling bodies. He certainly spoke out against censorship and other practices that he felt were inappropriate, but throughout it all, he still sought to work within the existing structures. He might have been liberal with his critique during the Commonwealth and surrounding years, but his narrow avoidance of arrest and the ensuing burning of his books that followed shortly thereafter would have served as a powerful reminder of his own mortality. I think one of the primary functions of fiction is distancing oneself far enough from topics to be able to talk about them in safe ways, and I think that's why at times it seems like Milton is maybe prancing around topics.

  2. Great post, (^^^and great response.) I just took an awful midterm in my World Civ class and wanted one of the essay questions to be the one about the Scientific Revolution, because I find it so fun to see these people like Copernicus and Galileo and Newton and Kepler coming to learn things that most of us haven't given a second thought in our lives to accepting as truth. But I guess they were pretty radical at the time, right? Even someone like Milton is "prancing around topics."

  3. Milton’s ‘prancing around’ wasn’t enough to keep him out of prison. He was on death row for regicide in 1660 in Newgate Prison. I’ve written a screenplay about it and am hoping to get a producer interested shortly..

    This too might be of interest..

    “I sometimes think I’ll have myself shut up in a dungeon ten fathoms below ground in complete darkness if only it will help me to find out what light is”. ..

    It is Galileo talking, from Brecht’s ‘The Life of Galileo’ and chimes with my theme that ‎John Milton‬ could only have written Paradise Lost as a result of his fall into imprisonment where he awaited execution..